“A Firm and Perpetual League of Friendship and Amity?”: Reevaluating the United Colonies of New England and the Politics of War, 1636-1690

by Tyler Rotter, Guest Contributor

As a self-proclaimed cultural historian, I began my dissertation research believing

Bloody Brook

Tyler A. Rotter at the site of Bloody Brook massacre near present day Deerfield, Massachusetts. On September 18, 1675, a group of Nipmuc Indians ambushed colonists escorting a wagon train, killing most of the militiamen and teamsters. Photo courtesy of the author.

political history was passé, especially in relation to military history. I could not have been more wrong. When addressing the relationship between religion and military conflict in early New England, the politics of war simply cannot be ignored. Although religious and civil institutions were considered separate pillars of authority in Puritan society, they regularly interacted. Wanting a deeper understanding of Puritan perceptions of war led me to investigate the workings of the United Colonies of New England, an institution with firm foundations in both the religious and civil life of the region. While initially approaching the topic from a cultural viewpoint, it became clear that I needed to reconsider the political life of early New England as well.

Wars, invasion threats, raids, border skirmishes, and expeditionary adventures continually frayed the nerves of Puritans in early New England. Shortly after the Winthrop fleet landed in Massachusetts, defense became a primary concern for the colonists. With the Pequot War (1636-1637) fresh in their memory and the English Civil War just beginning, representatives from the colonies of New England (Massachusetts Bay, New Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven), excluding Rhode Island, allied themselves in order to preserve the “purity” of their religion from outside interference and strengthen themselves against possible threats posed by the French, Dutch, and Native Americans. While seemingly a sound solution in theory, in practice the United Colonies of New England suffered from internal strife and contests of authority that made it ineffective from its inception in 1643.[1]

During the spring of 1637, Massachusetts prepared for war with the Pequots. Concerned about money and manpower, Massachusetts’s legislative body – the General Court – sought aid from Plymouth Colony. Already upset with Massachusetts over trade issues and land rights in Maine and Connecticut, Plymouth was hesitant to join forces with their


From Captain John Underhill, a woodcut print depicting the Battle of Mistick Fort near present day Mystic, Connecticut, May 1637. Hundreds of Native men, women, and children were killed at the hands of the English and their Indian allies. Image courtesy of the author.

sister colony to the North. It did not help matters that Plymouth blamed John Endecott, a prominent Massachusetts official and soldier, for single-handedly provoking the Pequots and starting the war. Addressing Plymouth’s objections, Massachusetts Governor Henry Vane insisted that they simply wanted Plymouth to “join against the common enemy, who . . . would prove as dangerous to them as to us.”[2] Though still uncertain, Plymouth officials agreed to join Massachusetts’s war effort. However, they wanted assurances that aid would be reciprocated in the event of future wars – a sentiment also shared by Connecticut.[3]

Even though Massachusetts insisted on cooperation between the colonies during the Pequot War, this stance was short-lived once the fighting stopped. Having not reaped the desired rewards (land) from the Pequot War, Massachusetts was hesitant to establish a confederation with the other Puritan colonies. Knowing they would contribute more resources and manpower in future conflicts, the Bay Colony wanted guaranteed authority over the other members and insisted on the supremacy of their own General Court over any confederation council, an argument that became a major point of contention once the


A map indicating the location of the New England Colonies in 1650. The location of New Netherland is also included. Image courtesy of the author.

United Colonies was established five years later.

According to the “Articles of Confederation,” the Commissioners had “full power” to assess all matters “of our war or peace.” Only six of the eight commissioners needed to agree in order to settle any business in question.[4] However, Massachusetts, as the largest colony in New England, refused to let their authority be undermined by the combined efforts of the league’s three smaller members.[5] For instance, during the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-1654), New Haven, Connecticut, and Plymouth were concerned about maintaining their trading and territorial interests that were threatened by the Dutch in neighboring New Netherland. Citing a rumor that the Dutch and Narragansetts were negotiating a treaty and discussing whether or not to attack the English, the three smaller colonies called for an immediate offensive expedition. While such an expedition was justifiable according to the United Colonies’ Articles of Confederation, the Massachusetts General Court refused to participate. When the other colonies challenged their refusal as destructive to the league, Massachusetts once again reasserted the “supreme power” of their General Court stating the Commissioners “cannot, nor ever did, challenge authority over us, or expect subjection from us.”[6] This assertion was not unique. Massachusetts Bay often used their self-imposed authority as a means to avoid participation in potential conflicts, or, at the very least, delay participation until royal officials challenged their authority directly.

king philip

A portrait of Metacomet (King Philip) made by Paul Revere for the 1772 edition of Benjamin Church’s An Entertaining History of King Philip’s War.

With the coming of King Philip’s War (1675-1676), Massachusetts shifted its policy back to one of cooperation.[7] A general fear of Indians continued to grow within Massachusetts throughout the seventeenth century and by the 1670s attitudes were at a tipping point. Because of this fear, Massachusetts offered Plymouth support in subduing Metacomet (King Philip) and the Wampanoags after the tribe initiated hostilities in the summer of 1675. However, Massachusetts continued to assert supremacy within the region, demonstrated in part by the United Colonies debate concerning the Narragansetts (a powerful tribe in southern New England that had been neutral in the war) in the fall. Connecticut favored a policy of caution and partial appeasement in order to prevent war with the


Place-marker at the location of the Great Swamp Fight between the English and Narragansett Indians. Image courtesy of the author.

Narragansetts, who were located on their eastern frontier. Conversely, Massachusetts – and subsequently Plymouth who had submitted to the Bay Colony’s increasing authority – tried to persuade the Connecticut commissioners to adopt a more aggressive posture. When Connecticut officials refused to budge, the Commissioners from Massachusetts and Plymouth declared Connecticut’s actions to be “an absolute violation” of the Articles of Confederation.[8] The subsequent


Depiction of the colonial attack on the Narragansetts for in the Great Swamp, near present day South Kingstown, Rhode Island. Image courtesy of the author.

English attack on the Narragansetts in December 1675 forced the powerful tribe into the war.

The United Colonies had been designed to be a unifying force in New England. While the two examples above are only a small sample of the problems faced by the league, they are representative of the many issues addressed by Commissioners during the Confederation’s tenure. When viewed against its stated purpose, the United Colonies were largely ineffectual until the group dissolved in 1690. This does not mean, however, the institution should be ignored. Examining the various debates that occurred between the member colonies, and the many political viewpoints exhibited during those debates, offers a window into how Puritan society viewed and acted in the face of war.

Tyler A. Rotter is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at The University of Southern Mississippi and is the department’s 2015-16 W.D. McCain Graduate Dissertation Fellow. His research has been funded in part by the Colonel W. Wayde Benson (USMC Ret.) Fellowship and the Lamar Powell History Graduate Scholarship from the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society. He is currently working on his dissertation “The New England Mind at War: Religion, Politics, and the Evolution of Puritan Identity, 1630-1720,” under the supervision of Dr. Kyle F. Zelner.

[1] The last major work to specifically focus on the United Colonies was Harry Ward’s The United Colonies of New England. Ward argued that although differences often arose amongst the confederated colonies, the United Colonies were successful and became the first example of federalism in the New World. See Harry M. Ward, The United Colonies of New England, 1643-1690 (New York: Vantage Press, 1961).

[2] All direct quotes have been changed to reflect modern spellings. John Winthrop, Winthrop’s Journal: “History of New England,” 1630-1649, ed. James Kendall Hosmer (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1908) 1:213-214; William Bradford, Bradford’s History “Of Plimoth Plantation”: From the Original Manuscript (Boston: Wright & Potter Printing, 1898), 419-423.

[3] The most comprehensive history of the Pequot War is Alfred Cave’s The Pequot War. Alfred A. Cave, The Pequot War (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996).

[4] David Pulsifer, ed., “Acts of the Commissioners of the United Colonies of New England,” in Records of the Colony of New Plymouth, in New England (Boston: Press of W. White, 1859), 9:6.

[5] Officials in Massachusetts Bay were constantly concerned with the independent nature of their colony and challenges of authority made present by the other New England colonies, various Indian groups, and forces within England. See Jenny Hale Pulsipher, Subjects unto the Same King: Indians, English, and the Contest for Authority in Colonial New England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).

[6] Nathaniel B. Shurtleff, ed., Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England (Boston: Press of W. White, 1854), 4.1:143.

[7] For further accounts of King Philip’s War and the English interaction with the Narragansetts, see Daniel R. Mandell, King Philip’s War: Colonial Expansion, Native Resistance, and the End of Indian Sovereignty (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010); James D. Drake, King Philip’s War: Civil War in New England, 1675-1676 (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999).

[8] Acts of the United Colonies, PCR, 10:456; MCR, 5:66-7.

About Heather Stur

Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is associate professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi and a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society. She writes and teaches about U.S. foreign relations, gender and war, the Vietnam War, and 20th century war and militarization in a global context. She is the author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge 2011). Dr. Stur spent the 2013-14 academic year as a Fulbright scholar in Vietnam, where she was a visiting professor on the Faculty of International Relations at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City.
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